The Ordinary Life of the Players: Feeling Happy?

rpgblogcarnivallogocopy[R.G.: The third of my RPG Blog Carnival posts; the first two are here and hereThis is a little less put together than some other posts. I had a number of thoughts on the subject and as disjointed as they seem to me I wanted to get them down. After all, I can always follow up with a more coherent post later, one of the joys of blogging.]

A sample question on the November RPG Blog Carnival asked, “If one of your players has had a bad week, do you consciously twist the game in a direction they will like to get them ‘in the mood’ or permit them to blow off steam – rather than letting it interfere with the game in some more substantial way?” That got me thinking along a number of avenues: mental health, self-care, what purposes RPGs can serve beyond entertainment. So let me commence to ramble and we’ll see where we end up.

My initial reaction is, yes, of course I do. Beyond simple entertainment (and I’m not knocking that, it’s a huge part of why I game), for me there is an important social component to gaming that sometimes get overlooked. When I get together with one of my regular groups I’m also spending time with friends, even if that friendship primarily exists around that table and nowhere else. And I want my friends to be happy, so if I can use the game we’re playing to let them escape their problems for a bit and blow off steam, why wouldn’t I? Don’t we play these games to be heroes? Where’s the harm in sliding the spotlight their way and letting their character shine when the player needs a hero the most?

I briefly considered that con games and other one-off sessions are the exception to worrying about this, but that’s not actually true in my experience. Whether I’m running or playing a game at a convention, I’m usually paying more attention to the mood of the others at the table. There’s a saying about con games that goes something like, “Every table has an asshole. If you can’t spot them, it might be you.” I’ve taken that to heart over the years, and I try to be very pro-active (with varying levels of success) about not being the asshole; more, of trying to be the anti-asshole and protecting the rest of the game from the asshole, once identified. Because this particular group is together for only a short period of time, I tend to work hard to make sure they have the best time possible, doubly so if any of the players show up in a bad mood. The games are why you go to a gaming convention, so if they aren’t fun you’ve pretty much lost out on the reason for being there.

Now this all works great for the players at the table, but it can be difficult as the game master to show yourself some self-care during a session to alleviate a bad day. Sometimes just running the game is enough, but occasionally you might need more than that. Maybe you need your hero moment and that can be difficult to pull off. In many games, for your NPCs to shine the characters (and by extension the players) need to fail. That can be fun every now and then as a dramatic beat to your campaign, but if you make a habit of crushing the characters on a regular basis you’ll soon find you don’t have anyone who’ll play with you.

My solution was to slowly, over time, change what I considered to be “winning” as a GM. The adversarial approach was great through junior high and high school, but as I got older I figured out that if I wanted the players to come back for more than a few sessions I had to stop thinking about beating their characters. Instead, I tied my wins to the player experience. For example, if the party encounters a ghost my win is not tied to the ghost beating the characters, but to making sure the players are scared of character death throughout the encounter. When they do beat the ghost they get to win for surviving and overcoming the obstacle, and I get to win because they felt they were one step from doom the entire time. Tying my win condition to the experience my players have has the benefit of my putting the focus on their entertainment and enjoyment, which I think is where it should reside. This doesn’t mean I don’t take a little pleasure when I manage to take down a character (I’m not made of stone), but it isn’t what drives my campaign design any more.

Rambling over. I hope this was somewhat interesting or helpful. What do you think? Do you adjust your game to help out players who feel down? Do you worry about mental health in your games at all? Let’s chat in the comments.

The Ordinary Life of the PCs: Making Magic Magical

This is my second in a series of articles for the November RPG Blog Carnival; the first can be found here. Enjoy!

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rpgblogcarnivallogocopyIt’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A not-so-quick trip back through the archives of my blog give that away. One of the things I love about the game is how streamlined it is, compared to 3.5e and 4e. It’s still a very robust set of rules, but it manages that without a great deal of clutter. One of the benefits of this, I’ve found, is greater latitude for DMs to customize and house rule for their own campaign.

When I first looked at the rules for magic item creation, I was impressed by how simple they were. The rarity of the item determines how much the material to create it will cost, and in turn that determines how long it will take to construct. For instance, if you want to make a Common item, it costs 100gp and will take a single person 4 days to create (half that cost/time if the item is a consumable item like a potion or scroll). There are a few additional rules about spells used and whether multiple crafters are working on an item, but that’s the gist. I like it; it’s enough of a cost in time/money to keep item creation from being something the players will take for granted, while still allowing it to be an option for just about any character with the necessary levels and tool proficiencies.

As much as I like the rules, though, I feel they’re missing something: the magic. As written, the process is very transactional, almost like buying the item with time and money. But think about it: the character is drawing upon one of the key forces in the universe to craft an item which essentially makes magic manifest. Crafting a magic item should be an event. There should be stakes involved, and sometimes a cost beyond just gold and days spent in toil.

So here are a few ideas I have for putting some magic back in item creation, with the rules as written as the base-level process. At the DM’s discretion, these can work to either shorten the amount of time it takes to craft an item, and/or reduce the crafting costs. Or perhaps, if the characters make poor choices, increase the time or gold spent. And there may be other consequences. After all, cursed items have to come from some where, right? For all of these, the more rare the item desired, the more effort should be involved in assembling the right components. For the very rarest items, assembling the elements of a successful crafting could form the basis of an entire series of adventures.

Location, Location, Location – Where is the character carrying out the crafting? Are they carefully illuminating that healing scroll in the divine scriptorium of a cathedral, or scribbling it out in their room at the inn? Are they crafting that ring of fire elemental command at the local jewellers, or did they set up their workshop next to an active lava flow to better connect to the element? If a character is just brewing up a basic potion it might be okay to use the kitchen at the inn for a few days. But the grander the item being crafted, the more impressive the location or environment should be. Encourage the players to let their imaginations to run to the extreme and exotic. And then craft an adventure around getting them there.

Only the Finest Ingredients – It’s assumed that the cost of crafting covers special ingredients. You can’t just scribble out a magical scroll with a ball-point pen, after all. Scrolls need special inks, magical armour needs rare or specially mined ores, and wondrous items need…the sky’s the limit, really. So maybe the character doesn’t have the money on hand to scribe that scroll of fireball. But she does have that vial of fire giant blood she kept for…reasons. Maybe if she mixed that with a bit of rare ink? Again, let the players’ imaginations come up with connections between the odd and rare items they come across in their adventures and items they’d like their characters to create. At some point they might move from using the oddities they’ve found to figuring out where to hunt down the oddities; now the DM has a whole new set of adventures to use.

Collaboration is Key – For many of the items, a character will have to find help in their crafting. While a puissant wizard brimming with arcane skill, they just don’t have the smithing chops to craft the sword the party fighter dreams of wielding. Sure, the local blacksmith might do for the “average” magic sword. But only Angmar Granitethews of the Golden Hammer School of Smiths will do to craft the weapon you need. Of course, these craftspeople didn’t get where they are by taking every commission that walks through their door. Or maybe they did, so why should they put those jobs aside to assist you? You might get their attention with bags of holding full of gold, but maybe riches aren’t what they need. And off the party goes, on a whole new set of adventures to secure the services of Scandibar of the Winding Way, Most Cunning of Arcane Artificers.

What Are You Prepared to Do? – It’s a fairly common trope that wielding the most powerful magic items can come with a cost. Shouldn’t crafting them cost something as well? Need that scroll but can’t afford to spend two days? Maybe you work a 16-hour day but take a level of exhaustion that takes longer to get rid of. That special sword you wanted may just require that you use only it, eschewing all other blades if you want the magic to work for you. Maybe that staff of the magi needs a bit of actual magi as part of the creation and after all, do you really need ten fingers? And when we start talking about sacrifice, the players and the DM will have to decide how far they want to take that. Is an alignment shift worth it to get the item made just right? Maybe, and the story of that decision makes for a great adventure.

The common thread through all of these points is to encourage the players to use their imaginations. Not all players will be into it, or you may decide that common items don’t need this level of detail. But even if you only use it for the most powerful items, working these elements into your magic item creation can help bring a sense of wonder to magic items in your campaign.

For the Players: Five Ways Your Characters Know Each Other

At the start of every new campaign, players struggle to come up with interesting backgrounds for their characters. Most often their character is a lone wolf, who lived a varied and interesting life before meeting the other characters as a complete stranger. That is certainly fun, and the “band of strangers bonding through adversity” is a pretty standard trope in fantasy and sci-fi lore.

But what if your character wasn’t a stranger to everyone? Interesting background possibilities open up when you involve another character in your back-story. The most common method is to make your characters related, and I have had a lot of fun playing the sister/brother/parent of another character. It adds a great dynamic to your role-playing. But sometimes the familial relation can be over-used by players, to the point where you might wonder if adventurers all come from the same extended family.

Luckily, there are myriad ways for characters to have known each other before the first adventure. All it takes is a little imagination and a willingness on the part of both players to use that common background. That last is important, because none of these backgrounds will work without the participation of both players. Though I’ve written five, really there are ten backgrounds here, because you could play either of the roles in each example. Feel free to use these backgrounds as written, tweak them to fit your campaign, or use them as inspiration for your own shared character background.

1) Your character’s family worked as servants for another character’s noble/wealthy family. You had no intention of becoming an adventurer, but when the noble character left to start his/her new life, you were sent to take care of him/her. Like it or not, you are stuck travelling with and protecting this adventuring scion, or your family may suffer for your failure.

2) Your characters served together as lay members of a church, before you lost your faith. When you were devoted you were close friends, but harsh words were spoken when you left and you’ve carried that with you. Now that adventuring has brought you back in contact, can you find a way to work together? And is there a chance you could be friends again?

3) You are a wanted person, a fugitive on the run from your home town. You’ve managed to stay ahead of the law by taking up the adventuring life in a foreign land. Much to your chagrin, one of the other characters is also from your home town. You’ve changed, but it’s only a matter of time before he/she recognizes you. Will he/she betray you? Or will you deal with the situation pre-emptively?

4) You served faithfully in the town guard for years. Until, that is, you were investigated and wrongly accused of abusing your position. You avoided going to jail, but your name was ruined and with few options you were forced into the mercenary life. Looking around the table at your new band of adventurer’s you see a familiar face: the investigator who ruined your life.

5) An orphan, your character grew up on the streets. He might not have survived except for the friendship of one of the other characters, a fellow orphan. Inseparable growing up, you were lucky enough to be plucked from the streets and given a life. Maybe you were taken in by the church, maybe you apprenticed with a prosperous merchant. Regardless, you haven’t seen your friend since you were pulled apart. Until, that is, you answered a call for adventurers and saw him/her at the table.

Do you have an interesting shared character background idea? Share it in the comments!

When a Game Master Gets Lost

It can happen to any Game Master.  There you are, mid-campaign.  In an attempt to keep the party engaged you have plot threads running everywhere.  But some of those threads are fraying, others are getting snarled up.  You aren’t sure anymore what is going on, and if you aren’t sure it is only a matter of time before the players aren’t sure either.  And when the players lose focus…

But it’s okay.  Take a deep breath.  I’m here for you, my struggling GM.  Here are three suggestions for regaining your campaign focus:

1) Re-read Character Backstories – If you were a clever and tricksy GM, you read the character backstories your players provided and mined them for precious plot ore.  Why are backstories so rich in plot?  Because your players are highlighting the things, people and events important to their characters.  They are providing you with the bones of people, places and situations that you can then build into encounters and adventures that engage the player because they affect the characters personally.  Stop the ritual because it will bring an age of darkness? *Yawn*  Stop the ritual because they are sacrificing the wizard’s sister to bring about an age of darkness?  Now you have your player’s attention.

So go back to those backstories, look at the elements you had already picked out.  Now look at your plot-threads.  Drop any thread that does not involve character backstory.  Put your effort into building encounters that are tied to the characters.  Don’t try to make every encounter personal to every character in the party, though, or you’ll wind up losing focus again.  Take a tip from television, make a character the “star” for a time, then move on to another.  The more personal you make encounters for the characters, the more involved your players will become.

What’s that?  Oh, you didn’t get character backstories when you started the campaign?  Okay, okay, don’t compound a rookie mistake by panicking!  Ask your players to answer these three questions about their characters:

  1. What is your characters most important relationship? (Does not have to be a loving one)
  2. Why is your character adventuring and not working in a shop/tavern/temple somewhere?
  3. What one thing does your character covet above all else?  What one thing does your character fear above all else?

Pretty basic questions, but the answers should give you some idea of where to focus your attention in your campaign.

2)  Plot Thread Does Not Equal Truth – It can happen that plot threads get snarled because of impromptu decisions during a game.  The party defeats Nasty Baddy x, and you decide on the spur of the moment to give him a dying speech that ties him to Villain a, even though you aren’t quite sure what that tie is yet.  Then you do it again with another NPC, and another.  Now you are tangled up in these threads and can’t figure out how to resolve them all.

So don’t.  Here is an important thing to remember, both in life and in the life of your NPCs: People Lie.  Sure, Nasty Baddy x may have gone on and on about how tight he was with Villain a.  But that doesn’t mean Villain a has even heard of Nasty.  Or maybe they are connected, but the connection is not as strong as Nasty would like to think.  Whatever the case, having your NPCs lie or just plain be wrong about something, will give them a bit more dimension and save you from having to tie too many threads together.  Don’t get too carried away with the lies, though, or your players will stop trusting you and your NPCs.

3)  Stall. Stall Like the Wind! – It is likely you will need time in which to put my first two suggestions into play.  No problem.  See that module or scenario you have always wanted to run, but you couldn’t figure out how to fit it into you plot?  Perfect!  Grab it, figure out an enticing hook or three for your party, and run it!  The fact that it has nothing at all to do with your main campaign is ideal in this case (and you must resist the urge to tie it in; remember how we got to this impasse?).  After all, not every event in real life is directly connected; wouldn’t the same hold true in your campaign world?  Sure, there may be a shadowy group trying to bring about an age of unspeakable evil, but in the meantime thieves still steal, ancient tombs are still creepy and unexplored and goblins still…gobble.

Giving your players an adventure that has nothing at all to do with any of your threads does several things.  One, playing keeps the fun going, which is important.  Two, it adds depth to your world, because as I have said people (even NPCs) have lives outside your plots and schemes.  Three, it keeps the players from tangling any of those threads further while you sort them out.  Finally, it gives you a bit of a break as well.  You can run a session or two of the “side-track” adventure to clear your head, before jumping back into your plots.  And if you’ve taken the first two pieces of advice, a couple of sessions (okay, maybe three) should be more than enough to get you back on track.

So next time you find yourself snarled up in plot threads, just relax, take a deep breath and remember my advice.  You can get untangled.

Thoughts?  Comments?  I’ve got a place for those…